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The moment of change between one century and another is no easily defined discrete box into which ideas can be crammed later to become defined as Twentieth Century as opposed to Twenty-first Century. Thomas Hardy knew this well when he published his much anthologised poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ on December 31st 1901. The poem looks forward to the newly defined Twentieth Century with a limited sense of blessed hope “whereof he knew but I was unaware” whilst also looking back at the Nineteenth Century’s corpse “outleant”. This sense of one eye being cast over the shoulder whilst the other is fixed firmly ahead is the hallmark of the Salt anthology of poems, Vanishing Points, edited by John Kinsella and Rod Mengham and published in 2004.
The backwards glance is towards the anthology Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair in 1996 in which, as Randall Stevenson suggested in Volume 12 of The Oxford English Literary History, there was a clear attempt to make great demands on readers to ensure that they “looked at the language on the page—rather than through it, towards a familiar, represented reality—transparency and ease of ordinary understanding had to be eliminated as far as possible”.
Sinclair’s introduction to Conductors of Chaos had thrown down a glove for the editors of anthologies and for serious readers of modern poetry:
“The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ it but I like having it around. The darker it grows outside the window, the worse the noises from the island, the more closely do I attend to the mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk. The very titles are pure adrenalin; Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, Tense Fodder, Hellhound Memos, Civic Crime, Alien Skies, Harpmesh Intermezzi, A Pocket History of the Soul. You don’t need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers. If these things are ‘difficult’, they have earned that right. Why should they be easy? Why should they not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which they exist? Why should we not be prepared to make an effort, to break sweat, in hope of high return? There’s no key, no Masonic password; take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes. You don’t need to sign up for Tom Paulin’s masterclass to reap the reward. If it comes too sweetly, somebody’s trying to sell you something.”
As if to emphasise even more the links between one century and the next, three of the seven titles mentioned by Sinclair were published by Rod Mengham’s Cambridge based Equipage Press and there is perhaps a sense of appropriateness here in his being the co-editor of the first significantly challenging new anthology of the Twenty-First Century. In his introduction to Vanishing Points Mengham takes up the challenge of reading as thrown down by Randall Stevenson, looking at language on the page:
“The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.”
The thirty-two poets in this anthology are from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America but despite this wide geographical range what binds them together is “a strong insistence on finding ways of continuing and renewing the lyric impulse in poetry in English”. The British contributors include Caroline Bergvall, Brian Catling, David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier, Andrew Duncan, Roy Fisher, Ulli Freer, Tony Lopez, Barry MacSweeney, Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake), Drew Milne, Ian Patterson, J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geoff Ward and John Wilkinson. Some of the poems in the anthology are from a much earlier date and Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages first appeared in 1971 from Fulcrum Press before re-emerging in 1986 as a joint production of Oasis Books and Shearsman Books. Introducing the first appearance of the poem Fisher had told his readers that the “aim in the improvisation was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations” and that the work “was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal was coming from”. This method of composition “produced very rapid changes of direction”. More on the cusp of the millennium Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Totem Banking’ and ‘I Looked Down On a Child Today’ were both written in 1998-1999 and included in his posthumous selected poems, Wolf Tongue, which appeared from Bloodaxe in 2003. ‘Totem Banking’ is dedicated to J.H. Prynne and the appropriate nature of its inclusion in this anthology is emphasised by Mengham’s introductory comments concerning the way in which “writers in this anthology have been part of a process of exchanging ideas manifested in little magazines, in the publishing programmes of small presses, and in the sheer volume of email and internet transactions”. It was Prynne, along with Andrew Crozier, who began much of this exchange of ideas with the creation and publication of The English Intelligencer back in the 1960s and it is a measure of the Cambridge poet’s professional commitment to new forms of writing that an extract from his own Red D Gypsum should form part of the new horizon posited by the editors of Vanishing Points.
Although Red D Gypsum was published by Barque Press (Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland) in 1998 it was one of the later sequences which prompted Andrew Duncan in 2003 to write “Of course, Prynne’s aesthetic of difficulty often causes panic anxiety, feels like sensory deprivation, and invites misconstruction…people have different perceptions of what ‘good pattern’ is, and may experience incompleteness as anxiety as well as cognitive freedom”. Writing about the sequence in 2009 Nigel Wheale suggested that it is worth thinking about the sense in which reading it “may be a cumulative experience for the reader” requiring a different reading strategy. This, of course, is entirely in tune with the editorial comments in Vanishing Points and John Kinsella, the co-editor, stressed that “Typically, a poem gives the reader or listener something to take away from the text—an emotional gravitas, whimsical joy, intellectual or spiritual connection or awakening”.
At the end of the last century Kinsella had formed a publishing partnership with Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery and this new Salt Press heralded the world of Print-on-Demand (PoD). The press soon made a name for publishing a pluralist view of poetry and the 2004 publication of Vanishing Points was like the raising of a standard.
Ian Brinton 10th April 2017
All art is in the past, acting as a record of what was seen or felt upon some occasion, and, as John Hall reminded us in his contribution to David Kennedy’s Necessary Steps (Shearsman 2007) the Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology for ‘occasion’ in terms of the falling of things towards each other:
‘It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an occasion, even for those with their attention on the everyday.’
A poem may appear to be occupied with a dramatic present (‘It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three’) but once the storyteller weighs in with his narrative it is firmly past tense (‘There was a ship…’). And it is the past’s intrusion into the present that is a mainstay of all Art. A poem, if it is worth anything, interrupts the even flow of the day-to-day; it appears in the manner described by Lyn Hejinian which Peter Philpott uses as the introductory presence to the first section of this sequence of poems which revolves around his grand-daughter, Ianthe:
‘The desire to tell within the conditions of a discontinuous consciousness seems to constitute the original situation of the poem. The discontinuity of consciousness is interwoven through the continuity of reality—a reality whose independence of our experience and descriptions must be recognized.’
When I first read a piece of prose by Lyn Hejinian it was in the Salt anthology Vanishing Points edited by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella over ten years ago and a line that struck me there was to do with children’s play; ‘They bend, the hour is bound somewhere.’ Fluidity and stillness, children’s ‘present’ and the adult’s binding of a moment into a poem.
If I were still school-teaching I would use some of these fresh, innovative and delightfully playful lyrics from Peter Philpott’s new volume. I often used to present a world of childhood through the eyes of ee cummings and his little lame balloon-man as well as through the binding loss of Blake’s priest in black gowns. Now I would include Peter Philpott’s ‘non-poetic coffee shop’
‘where babies gather in their buggies
& a man gives a tutorial on public health
and the staff chat about what they bought on holiday’
I would include this world in which ‘our ease is sweet here / luscious and dropping’; a world of ‘persistent bird cries / like little lyric poems’ which ‘erupt’ to intrude upon the mundane. These poems are unafraid to be serious. These poems are unafraid to be personal and to evoke domestic connections of the highest quality. These poems remind me of the point Peter Robinson once made when he recounted how the Italian poet Franco Fortini had approached him at a poetry festival in Cambridge to ask ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It seems almost as if an ironic tone is adopted in order to protect the poet from being seen as nakedly serious and wanting to refer to genuinely felt emotions. This is absolutely not true of these poems by Peter Philpott:
‘what you read here is
what wisdom in these words
uncountable but singable not
what is said but how
each word points at this world!’
The lines of a poem, the binding of a moment, the words (already an echo of the past by virtue of being language) reflect what Philpott recalls from Keston Sutherland about ‘The pressure to think and sing’. The poems constitute a type of absence:
the darkness enclosing
Ian Brinton, 7th September 2015
John Kinsella’s words on the back of this remarkable collection of performance textuality struck me very much indeed before I even started to trace a thread through the labyrinth of thought and humour which holds this provocative book together. Kinsella suggests that Seita’s theatrics ‘work the defamiliarised into the known: a fantasia of the writer’s making defaulting into non-ownership.’ As I became enveloped by the last piece in the book, ‘Talk between Nudes’ I could see what he might have been getting at as I found myself contemplating the way in which Wyndham Lewis may have written The Apes of God, that masterpiece of social satire from 1930:
[DE LEMPICKA’s decorous parlour. A long dining table, no chairs. To the right, a dressing table, to the left a floor-length painting that looks like a mirror. DE LEMPICKA wears a flashy grey table-cloth intricately wrapped around her intricate body.
It is perhaps that repetition of the word ‘intricate’ that heightens the humour: the self-awareness, the posing, the narcissism. The use of the word ‘floor-length’ with its audible hiss of a formal dress looks OF COURSE like a mirror and ‘flashy’ sets off the intricacy. These ideas are taken up in the next paragraph
The abundance of silk in the room effortlessly implies the taken-for-grantedness of cultured persons conversing in pleasant company.
Of course the word ‘conversing’ is right! They are not simply talking; they are cultured and what they immerse themselves in is effortlessness!
In October 2013, in Cambridge, J.H. Prynne wrote some words for Ian Heames’s publication of Will Stuart’s Nine Plays (Face Press 2014) and it is worth recalling these:
These are then radical experiments, radically unfamiliar in their effects and modalities, built up from speech registers redolent with common life and its credible lumpen similitudes; they are done with most palpable courage in the face of imminent damage to their own logic.
Sophie Seita’s ‘AN EXERCISE’, part of a sequence of poems titled ‘just pick a line’, opens with the concluding line of the previous poem, A DIAGRAM, sitting slapbang in the centre of the page opposite its title:
The one thing that interested me about the poem was that it was not yet there.
This is a delightfully provocative and uplifting statement and I found myself dwelling on the weight of that final word. After all, ‘there’ is such a placed word; it has such a self-justifying sense of itself; it is the final word of an argument which you think you have won…‘there’. It has also such a sense of the finished, the past, the unmoving. A few pages further on we read
Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lions now
Thinking about lie-ins now?
The reader says
lots of words sound like
It seems to me entirely appropriate that Sophie Seita should have become the translator of Uljana Wolf’s Babeltrack (Notes on a Lengevitch), part of which is published in the splendidly presented new issue of Cambridge Literary Review edited by Lydia Wilson, Rosie Šnajdr and Jeremy Noel-Tod. Incidentally this new issue, which is subtitled ‘The Children’s Issue’, is guest-edited by Eve Tandoi:
the dissolution of the linguistic sound system in aphasics provides an exact mirror-image of the phonological development in child language, writes Jakobson, as if aphasia made the child’s acquisition of speech possible in the first place and with it every production of sound in developmental stages, as if it held the mirror or provided rules, folie oder folly, as if we could find in this very bad sound-production disorder a blueprint for what is to come…
There is a memorable statement in the interview Caroline Bergvall gave for Scott Thurston’s Talking Poetics (Shearsman Books 2011) when she said that we are in a culture ‘where politically we’re encouraged to be non-intellectuals and by and large, non-critical’:
We’re being asked to swallow what’s happening, and to stick very close to each our own separate condition. We’re asked not to show broader empathy or engagement, nor to engage with what happens to others; not to be too polemical, unless we are directly connected. It’s so dangerous. We’re all connected.
Ian Brinton 12th May 2015
These days it seems you can’t have a high profile poetry prize or appointment without some attendant, no, prerequisite brouhaha. So, of course, the T S Eliot Prize gets to have its very own in the shape of two poets – Alice Oswald and John Kinsella – withdrawing their entries from the prize because it has been funded by a hedge fund Aurum.
The three year sponsorship with Aurum came in the wake of a 100% cut to funding by the Arts Council, forcing the Poetry Book Society, who manages the prize, to seek money elsewhere.
I’ll stick my neck out a bit by wondering how much Aurum can be “at the pointy end of capitalism” as Kinsella puts it, if it’s willing to fund poetry and the arts in general. Granted, Aurum no doubt has its own not so altruistic agenda in wanting to fund prize but where else could the money have come from?
Even more controversially, the news of Burnside’s win has yet to make it to the Poetry Book Society’s own website yet it’s on Guardian’s website and has even made it as far as the Chicago Tribune’s. I’m jesting of course when I say this is controversial but is this indicative of the PBS’ straitened circumstances?
Even more – gasp – controversially, the title of Burnside’s winning collection, Black Cat Bone is very close to the title of a poem I wrote some years ago called Black Dog Bone. Both the title of his collection and my poem are inspired by Vodoun. I’m aware this means something only to me but I’d hate to be accused of plagiarism!